Think Bordeaux, think red. Think again. Outstanding whites – which all too often end up languishing in wine merchants' cellars – do exist. MICHAEL SCHUSTER introduces a selection of his personal favourites from Pessac-Leognan and Sauternes.
Bordeaux is mainly red. And increasingly so. Fifteen years ago, 78% of Bordeaux was red wine, 22% white. In 2000, 88% of wine was red, 10% was dry white and 2% sweet. It is a continuing, if slowing, trend which reflects market demands. Ask a UK merchant with a good claret list about dry white Bordeaux and the answer will likely be: ‘Great wines, can’t sell ’em.’ As for Sauternes, while somewhat easier to sell, we don’t drink it often enough to give much buoyancy to that market either. We miss out in both cases, and the following wines from Pessac-Léognan and Sauternes, chosen for their individuality, quality and consistency, show why.
The appellation of Pessac-Léognan was created in 1987, to distinguish that northern area of the Graves where the cream of its vineyards is situated. Most Pessac-Léognan properties make red and white, the latter representing 20% of the appellation’s production. This is only 130,000 cases a year – less than a third of what Pomerol makes, and part of the reason for people’s limited contact and familiarity with the Pessac-Léognan wines.
With the notable exception of Laville Haut-Brion in which Semillon predominates (over 70%), most Pessac-Lèognan wines are typically half to two-thirds Sauvignon Blanc, with the balance made up by Semillon. And if one’s Sauvignon Blanc benchmarks are the tropically fruited clarity of New Zealand, or the chalk-infused gooseberry aromas of the best Loires, then white Graves mostly don’t taste of Sauvignon. Instead, after an early gooseberry green shout, Bordeaux Sauvignon Blanc goes on to smell, first of its gravel bedding, then of bottle age wax and honey. It behaves disconcertingly (to the blind taster at least) like its Semillon partner. Both taste more of their Bordeaux origins.
DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER (70% Sauvignon, 30% Semillon; 1/3 new wood; 2,000 cases). Olivier Bernard makes bone-dry, classy mid-weight wines, linear when young, but ageing to discreet but complex oak-cedar, stone, nutty and honeyed maturity. Leave for 10 years if you can. Particularly recommended vintages are fine wines in the lesser years of 1984 and 1992; 1985 and 1988, drinking magnificently now, and full of aromatic reserve; and 1996, 1997, 1998 (see listing at end of article), 1999 (majestic) and 2000, which make up a great run. The wine world is awash with fat, lush early drinking whites. We should treasure this tautly Pessac-Léognan aristocratic gem.
LAVILLE HAUT-BRION (70% Semillon, 30% Sauvignon Blanc, occasionally a little Muscadelle; 40-50% new wood; 1,000 cases). Part of the Haut-Brion stable, made from a section of the La Tour Haut-Brion vineyard where the soil is more clayey, heavier and cooler, and particularly suited to Semillon. Laville’s scale and proportions differ from Domaine de Chevalier: grander, with more “fat” from the majority of Semillon. These are deep, dry, generous Pessac-Léognan wines which, at 8–10 years, develop Semillon’s distinctive wax, lanolin and honey bouquet. 1985, 1988 and 1989 are drinking beautifully now; while 1994 and 1998 have fine long-term prospects.
COUHINS-LURTON (100% Sauvignon; 1/3 new wood; 3,000 cases). Owned by André Lurton, the driving force behind so much of the regeneration of the Graves and Pessac-Léognan appellation. When young, its Sauvignon aroma is gently cedary from oak, with guava and melon freshness; with age this becomes Semillon-waxy. It has a highly individual flavour: long and limpid, steeped in citrus and stone. Best at 5–8 years, 1996, 1998, and 2001 are excellent here.
LA LOUVIERE (85% Sauvignon 15% Semillon; 1/3 new wood; 7,500 cases). Also owned by André Lurton. The soil here is lighter than that of Couhins-Lurton, and the wine has less matter and more obvious fruit flavour. From early on this is a peach and melon white Bordeaux, cut with Sauvignon greenery. Refreshing with a lovely aromatic aftertaste. Savour in its first five years. Smith-Haut-Lafitte (90% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Semillon, 5% Sauvignon Gris; 50% new wood; 4,000 cases). Brisk, aromatic and gently oaky wines. Deliciously racy and recognisably Sauvignon when young, but also assuming that mature Graves wax and honey mantle with bottle age. Fuller, fatter, lower yield, later picked wines, aiming at a more vin de garde style from the late 1990s.
CARBONNIEUX (65% Sauvignon, 35% Semillon; 1/3 new wood; 20,000 cases). A superb 20-year-old bottle of the 1971 shows just how good the terroir and potential of this wine is, with a length and resonance of flavour that matches the best white Graves. After an indifferent period these whites are on good form again since the mid 1990s: crisp, elegant, graceful elderflower Sauvignon and Semillon wax wines. They teeter between first rank and top second; without question they should be the former.
The typical Sauternes blend is 80% Semillon (for its fatness when mature, and its susceptibility to botrytis) and 20% Sauvignon Blanc (for a balancing freshness). Fuelled by the post-1982 interest in Bordeaux, and by a series of outstanding vintages – 1988, 1989, 1990, 1996, 1997 and, especially, 2001 – more fine Sauternes is being made now than for a long time.
There is more clay in most Sauternes soil, where wines tend to be fatter and richer, and more limestone in Barsac, whose proportions are lighter, fresher, and a touch more minerally. In practice these differences are often easier to describe than to discern blind.
Young Sauternes has the juicy sweetness of a ripe pineapple topped with the coconut and vanilla of new oak. To a sweet tooth it is delicious from the moment it is bottled, if rather brash. Keep it 10 years, and wait for its bouquet of wax and barley sugar, and the seductive, liqueur-like smoothness that comes with full maturity.
D’YQUEM (80% Semillon, 20% Sauvignon; 100% new wood; 6,500 cases). What makes Yquem special is not primarily its sweetness – other properties regularly have more residual sugar. It is more to do with the absolute quality, concentration and clarity of its flavours, with a texture that is dense and luscious without being strong or heavy. It is an exciting wine to taste at any age, and now is a rare opportunity to buy a great vintage – the 1996 – in half bottles.
CLIMENS (100% Semillon; 1/3 new wood; 5,500 cases). Second only to Yquem in most years, this is often close in scope and length, but very different in style. Next to Yquem it tastes like an archetypal Barsac: less absolutely rich, less marked by new oak, with a limestone-infused, clear, freshness and a particular purity of flavour, characters it also retains in maturity. The 100% Semillon means that this is a wine that often takes 10 years or so to really bouquet, and to develop that beguilingly smooth-rich texture. A wine that is good even in its lesser years, its 1983, 1986 and 1990 vintages are absolute perfection now.
SIGALAS RABAUD (85% Semillon, 15% Sauvignon; 30-50% new oak; 2,500 cases). Administered since 1995 by Cordier, which also owns Lafaurie-Peyraguy, Sigalas is now brilliantly vinified by Michael Laporte, along with his son Yannick, in just the same way as Lafaurie. Tasting them side by side en primeur brings into focus the richness of Lafaurie, though I almost always prefer Sigalas for its thoroughbred quality, more minerally restraint, and almost lacy finesse even in rich vintages such as 1997.
GUIRAUD (65% Semillon, 35% Sauvignon; 50-60% new wood; 8,500 cases). Managed for the last 20 years by Xavier Planty, Guiraud has been producing wines at the very top of the Sauternes quality ladder, notably since 1996. Its high proportion of Sauvignon Blanc gives it an balance of intense sweetness and fresh, citrussy acidity.
NAIRAC (90% Semillon, 6% Sauvignon, 4% Muscadet; new oak varies considerably; 1,000 cases). Run since 1992 with an exacting perfectionism by Nicolas Heeter-Tari, whose wines are rich both in botrytis and in sugar, but retain their particularly distinctive Barsac imprint of freshness and elegance. These are different in style from his father’s less concentrated wines, and it will be very interesting to see how these age. What is not in doubt is that they are brimming with promise. Seek out the 1996 and 1997 at the moment.
DOISY-DAENE (100% Semillon; 1/3 new oak; 6,000 cases). Owned by the Dubourdieu family – whose oenologist son, Denis, inspired the new quality of winemaking in the Graves – and exquisitely made year in, year out, by the demanding and intellectually curious father, Pierre. Consistent, fresh, elegant, rich and mid-weight Sauternes which ages most harmoniously, as shown by the 1983 and 1986 vintages. Generally this is exceptional value for money.